Using hack days to explore maps at scale

||Written by Daniel van StrienSeptember 18, 2020Comments: 0

This two part blog post is accompanied by a set of map hack day example notebooks on GitHub.

When Living with Machines was working onsite the project ran a number of internal ‘hack days’ as a way of exploring a research question, technical challenge or other issues the project wanted to tackle in a collective way. We have discussed some of these previously in the context of ‘OCR hack‘.

We thought it might be worth exploring in a little more depth, what these hack days are, why we think they can be useful and some of the limitations of this approach. We focus on a particular strand of work related to maps as an example of this way of working in action.

What is a hack day?

The term ‘hack day’ means different things to different people. Often the term is used to describe (semi) public events where ‘technical people’ come together and write code or generate ideas to try and solve a particular challenge. Sometimes these events may also have a competitive component to them with a team or individual winning prizes for their solutions.

On the Living with Machines project, we have used the term ‘hack day’ to refer to sessions where a group of people from the project team work together with some type of shared goal. This work includes both ‘technical’ and ‘non-technical’ work, with much of the time being used for collective discussions of ideas which might not get sufficient discussion time in normal meetings. There has been some debate within the project about what the most suitable naming for these types of events should be.

As a way of illustrating how these hack days worked in practice and the potential benefits and challenges of working in this way, I will give a short overview of a series of hack days focused on working with maps at scale.

Working with maps at scale: exploring what is possible through a series of hack days.

At the start of the project, when work was arranged under the umbrella of a number of different labs, there was a desire within the ‘Space and Time’ lab to explore how the project might be able to work with digitised maps at scale. In particular, there was a desire to see how computer vision techniques might be applied to historical maps in a way that would allow historians to ask questions of a large number of maps using automated machine learning methods.

Since computer vision was an area that was relatively new to the project, a decision was made to explore a number of questions related to maps in a series of ‘hack days’. Each of these focused on one particular topic.

The broad aims of the hack days were to:

  • Collectively learn about a number of topics related to computer vision 
  • Explore how these techniques could be applied within the context of the project
  • Begin identifying new potential strands of research

In a follow-up post I explore two examples of these hack days and briefly touch on the pros and cons of such an approach.



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